(Published in the Community Voices Section of the Philly Inquirer in Sept 1999)
I was at the Fernbank Science museum in Atlanta recently, looking at an exquisite collection of seashells from oceans around the world, when on a pedestal proudly seated, I spied this gorgeous little shell from the shores of the Indian Ocean. It was one among many other gems from the same region, and as I looked at it, a tight lump of unexpected tears lodged in my throat.
It sat there in all its fragility, perhaps a little drier than it would have been in the salty Indian waters, its pink a little less glowing, but it still brought its unique charm to the assortment around it.
There I am! The thought was as unexpected as the tears. That is how I see myself, the difference being that I was transplanted by my own volition. But I imagined in it, and in me, the longing for the "Indian waters" still remains, and the special luster from wallowing in it is definitely lacking.
Having lived in the United States for about seven years, I naturally consider this country as a second home - one that I have allowed to change me in certain ways over time. I have never regretted my choice to come here. It is a privilege to be able to experience and compare two widely different cultures and to have the freedom to choose the aspects of each.
My mind has opened up to several ideas that I would never have encountered in the sheltered Indian environment. My interests and inspirations have expanded. I feel much less tied down by insignificant constraints, much more free to fly. This, undoubtedly, is the land of infinite possibilities.
Contradictory as it may seem, living in America also has opened several very precious Indian doors to me, making it easier to be the kind of Indian that I want to be. As graduate students, we worked in voluntary charitable organizations to raise several thousand dollars each year, to support the needy back home.
My exposure to Indian culture has reached higher levels in this country. Never in my wildest dreams while in India did I imagine that I would one day dine with musical legends like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Sivkumar Sharma, but it happened here.
Still, sometimes on rainy days, while I'm curled up in the quiet privacy of my "luxuriously" carpeted, air-conditioned, odor-free living room in Philadelphia with its view of the green lawns, my nostrils ache with longing for the musky odors of the Indian monsoon falling on the dirt-covered driveway and dusty palm fronds outside our noisy apartment back home.
That feeling of being incomplete is a friendly cloud that hovers around me like a shadow. It's the feeling of being a visitor in somebody else's manicured garden. It dims over time, but never quite goes away. Something as simple as the jasmine-like scent of honeysuckle on a jog though the park or an Indian soap opera (which I have never watched while in India) playing on the TV in the International Student Office on the university campus regularly triggers unexpected tears, much like the involuntary reaction to an onion! It is like a very private, stolen, cherished moment that leaves me feeling good.
I am a confusing mixture of emotions, values and priorities. I think most Indians who have moved away are. Or maybe it is something that descends on us after the childlike part of us has come full circle and found a comfortable routine after most of the exciting new experiences aren't new anymore. Then the heart longs for what it has left behind, for its first love, for everything Indian. And in its pounding will echo the ancient rhythms of the Indian Ocean.